Obama Must Follow Through On His Threats to 'Call Out' Foes

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On several occasions this year, President Obama has expressed with certain bravado a threat to "call out" anyone who would undermine his reform efforts. The problem is that the Ivy League gentleman from Hawaii appears not to have mastered this coarsened art of the streetwise rebuke and, as a result, he tends to come off as bluffing.

"If you misrepresent what's in this [health care] plan, we will call you out," Obama told a joint session of Congress last week. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) apparently knew better. He not only misrepresented the plan but also interrupted Obama's speech to call the president a liar.

Sure enough, Obama did not call him out.

Let's face it: Our articulate and mild-mannered president doesn't have the stomach for the kind of merciless ridicule that one uses to expose and embarrass political hypocrites and scoundrels. But if Obama is going to keep threatening to call people out -- as if he were from the streets and not just someone who used to work in the streets -- the least he can do is learn the fundamentals.

Otherwise, he's just selling wolf tickets -- writing macho bad checks with his mouth and leaving others to cover the racial overdraft.

Some people don't believe Wilson's outburst had anything to do with race. They'll tell you it's democracy in action. But tell that to the many African Americans who know first-hand the subtlety of post-racial slights. What had been our excitement over Obama's election is rapidly becoming consternation at a marked increase in racism and attendant racial disparities -- in health, income, jobs and housing -- to say nothing of Obama's abject refusal to even broach the subject of race.

With Obama virtually stunned into submission by Wilson's retort, senior black Democrats were left scrambling to defend the young president's honor. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who is black, tried the backroom approach and pleaded three times for Wilson to make a public apology. (Actually, asking more than twice amounts to begging.) Wilson refused.

That snub led to Tuesday's House vote to sanction Wilson -- the only face-saving measure that black lawmakers could offer their constituencies. Unfortunately, the move had the unintended consequence of making Wilson a martyred son of the South. Rebel yellers in the district where he is seeking reelection could hardly ask for a better reason to rally.

Meanwhile, during an interview Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes," Obama said he had been surprised by the insult from Wilson but appreciated the private apology he received afterward.

Never mind that the apology was perhaps one of the most insincere in recent memory. Wilson now uses the incident as part of his fundraising campaign -- visible proof that he's got what it takes to treat a man like Obama the old-fashioned, South Carolina way.

"Do you think that Congressman Wilson should be rebuked?" correspondent Steve Kroft asked Obama. "There was talk about that today, and now he's claiming that he is a victim. That he's being attacked."

Obama responded with inappropriate laughter. "But see, this is part of what happens. I mean, it becomes a big circus instead of us focusing on health care."

Talk about clueless.

Clyburn was reportedly exasperated that Obama advisers, who are overwhelmingly white, had urged the president to publicly forgive a man who would not publicly apologize and simply forget about the insult.

And yet, many African Americans just don't have that luxury. We know that part of the price we must pay for having a black president is finding ways to cope with a growing racial backlash.

Obama needs to know that when he gets slapped, figuratively speaking, during a speech to Congress that is being broadcast worldwide, black people everywhere feel the sting.

I suggest that since the young president has a penchant for special advisers, he should appoint a smack-down czar who can school him on how to deal with these increasingly offensive insults.

Lesson one ought to be fairly straightforward: When giving a major policy address and some ill-mannered yahoo yells out an insult, the first thing you do is call out the culprit. Make him stand up and endure the boos. In Wilson's case, stare him down with contempt and pity, then remind the gentleman from Dixie that his side lost -- again -- and that he'd do well to show as much class in defeat as Robert E. Lee.

As for those Republicans rudely waving papers while you're trying to speak, politely request that they fold their documents into cone shapes and sit on them until you are finished.

Then pick up where you left off: ". . . and I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead." If the heckling continues, call Serena Williams. Tell her to bring two tennis rackets.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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